Upgrading Europe’s air : How a strong Industrial Emissions Directive can save lives and money

Although portrayed as a global leader in environmental protection, Europe’s industrial pollution regulation has been eroded through the adoption of weak standards, loopholes and a permitting culture that only enforces the most lenient limits. As a result, industry’s emission reduction falls far behind what is technically feasible, at the expense of public health and environmental protection.

In this report, the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) assesses the potential health benefits and public savings under strong mitigation measures for the intensive agro-industrial rearing of livestock and industrial sectors covered by the Industrial Emissions Directive.

Among the studied sectors, thermal power is the largest emitter of NOx, followed by cement and oil & gas refining. Oil & gas refining is the largest emitter of SO2, followed by thermal power and iron & steel. Iron & steel is the largest emitter of particulate matter, with thermal power and pulp & paper the second and third largest emitters. Thermal power is the largest emitter of mercury. Total NOx emissions from all countries and from all the included sectors amount to approximately 853,000 tonnes per year. Emissions from thermal power plants seem to outweigh the other sectors’ emissions.

Total SO2 emissions amount to just over 600,000 tonnes per year with Poland’s thermal power sector contributing a sixth of this at 100,000 tonnes per year followed by Germany’s thermal power at 68,000 tonnes of SO2 emissions (Figure 2). The third largest emitter is again Germany with its oil & gas refineries.

Agriculture is by far the largest ammonia emitting sector with total emissions of the gas from the sector amounting to approximately 3.5 million tonnes a year in the EU27+UK. Germany’s agricultural activities emit 650,000 tonnes of ammonia per year making it the largest European emitter, with France accounting for 570,000 tonnes of annual emissions and Spain emitting 430,000 tonnes of the gas.

There are major health benefits related to the decrease in emissions, especially the reduction in power plant and industrial NOx and SO2 emissions, as well as ammonia emissions from agriculture. These gases are important precursors to PM2.5, and NOx is also a key precursor to ozone. PM2.5 is of particular danger to human health as it can penetrate deep into the lungs and into the bloodstream when inhaled and consequently increasing the risk of multiple cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. Over 20 million restricted activity days could be avoided due to reductions in the contribution of the agricultural sector to PM2.5 levels, and a further 7 million restricted days could be avoided from the power and industry sectors combined.

Key findings of the report:

● The power, industrial and agricultural sectors are major sources of air pollutant emissions. In the EU27 and the UK, emissions from power and industry are responsible for 80, 27 and 74% of SO2, NOx and mercury emissions, while agriculture accounts for 94% of ammonia emissions (EEA, 2021; AMAP/UNEP, 2019).
● Emission control performance in Europe’s industrial sectors is far behind best international practices and best available techniques (BAT). The reasons are “best available technique” requirements weakened by lobbying, as well as lenient application of the requirements and prevalent use of derogations on the national level. Agriculture has been largely excluded from emissions regulation despite its major contribution to PM2.5 pollution through ammonia emissions. The revision of the Industrial Emissions Directive is a once-in-a-decade opportunity to address these issues.
● Air pollutant emissions from power and industry are responsible for an estimated 17,000 annual deaths due to exposure to PM2.5, ozone and mercury. The largest polluting sectors are thermal power, oil & gas refineries and the iron & steel sector, and the countries whose emissions cause the greatest impacts are Germany, Poland and France.
● Application of best available end-of-pipe techniques in the power and industrial sectors would avoid an estimated 10,000 deaths and external costs of EUR 28 billion per year. These improvements can be accomplished by requiring large combustion plants to comply with the more stringent end of current best available technique definitions, with a high bar for exemptions, while the iron & steel and cement sectors would additionally require an update to the definitions of BAT to reflect best international practices.
● Emissions from agriculture are responsible for an estimated 72,500 annual deaths due to exposure to PM2.5. The countries whose emissions cause the greatest impacts are Germany, France and Italy.
● Improvements to agricultural practices could reduce ammonia emissions by 1.27 million tonnes by 2030, avoiding 27,000 deaths per year from air pollution and economic costs of EUR 75 billion per year. Fully realizing these improvements requires defining the scope of the revised Industrial Emissions Directive to fully cover industrial-scale livestock and manure operations.
● There is an urgent need to improve reporting on emissions from industrial facilities in the EU. The current system provides very limited data, and even that with a delay of up to five years, hampering both enforcement and research.

Lauri Myllyvirta, Lead Analyst, CREA; Jamie Kelly, Air Quality Analyst, CREA; Erika Uusivuori, Europe Analyst, CREA

Partners: European Environmental Bureau (EEB)